At the age of 76, and after 46 years in the business, filmmaker Ken Loach remains staunchly committed to his blue-collar roots. The son of an electrician, he's happiest telling the stories of the disadvantaged and downtrodden, and his eye for the rhythms of British working-class life is unparalleled. Like John Sayles, Loach favors the kind of people -- and income brackets -- Hollywood largely ignores, drawing us into the turbulent worlds of alcoholics (My Name Is Joe), single mothers (Ladybird, Ladybird) and construction workers (Riff Raff) with humor and empathy.
The film critic David Thomson once said he found it easier to respect Loach than to enjoy him, but a happy partnership with the writer Paul Laverty (or perhaps just the advancing years) has softened the director's gaze and sharpened his funny bone. Looking For Eric may be Loach's most accessible film yet, a gruff, touching, frequently hilarious ode to the pressures of family and the salvation of community.
"It's a film against individualism," Loach explains in the film's press notes. "We're stronger as a gang than we are on our own." That sentiment appears so rarely at the multiplex -- or anywhere else -- these days that it's virtually subversive.
Shot on location in Manchester, the film follows Eric Bishop (Steve Evets, onetime bassist for The Fall), a fortysomething mail carrier who's slowly losing his mind. Depressed, prone to panic attacks, he struggles to cope with the two unruly stepsons whose mother bailed seven years earlier.
"When was the last time you were happy?" asks his NHS-approved shrink, and the answer is clear: 30 years ago, when he and his first wife, Lily (Stephanie Bishop), met as teenagers at a dance contest. A too-soon baby and too-late maturity birthed the first of the panic attacks, and Eric ran; now he and Lily have been thrown together again to help care for their tiny granddaughter, and Eric is a mess.
His mates at the post office rally round with sidesplitting ineptitude, until a furtive spliff in the bedroom one night transforms a poster of the soccer genius Eric Cantona into a real-life mentor. In a series of gentle, humorous scenes, Cantona (who initiated the project and collaborated on dialogue) counsels Eric to take risks and trust his friends. A god to Manchester United fans, "King Eric" coaches his protege using the surreal aphorisms that used to delight and confound the press in the 1990s, and his presence lends the film an aura of fantasy that balances the flintiness of its location. Loach may be one of our last great social realists, but his touch with the fantastical works -- so much so that a sudden detour into violence neither breaks the film's back nor displaces our attention.
Suffused with a rough warmth and a forgiving view of humanity, Looking For Eric understands the absurdities and consolations of low-rung lives. And though the Mancunian accents can be tough -- and there are no subtitles -- Loach has an ear for the way working men talk to one another; he knows the camaraderie of the pub and the weekly release of the soccer match.
"Where else can you sing at the top of your voice with all your mates?" asks Eric, bemoaning ticket prices that have climbed beyond the reach of the average punter. In the end, Looking For Eric is about nothing less than trying to do the right thing when life keeps doing you wrong.